Editorial: Establish limit on political gifts

Provincial New Democrat leader Adrian Dix has promised to ban political donations by unions and corporations if his party wins the election next month. Calling this an attempt to ease public cynicism about politics, Dix suggested the decision will be “good for the business community and the labour movement.”

It will certainly be good for Dix and his party. What it will do about public cynicism is another matter.

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In the run-up to the 2009 provincial election, the NDP raised $2.2 million from union and corporate sources, while the Liberals took in $6.6 million.

Both parties also collected money from individual donors.

By taking labour and business out of the equation, Dix suggests he is being even-handed.

But as the figures show, he has clearly favoured his own party.

If these bans had been in place at the last election, the NDP would have beaten the Liberals in fundraising, instead of losing heavily, as they did.

In short, this is a blatant act of self-interest masquerading as high-minded reform. And it is only the latest example.

The current Liberal government played the same game, but from the opposite side of the table.

It’s well known that unions are more comfortable running political advertisements than are companies. Readers may have seen TV spots placed by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation over the last few weeks.

Corporations, especially small businesses, are less likely to support political parties in public. So over the last 12 years the Liberals tried three times to rein in pre-election advertising, knowing this would disproportionately favour their cause.

Each time the courts stepped in and struck down these bans. The only limits that survive deal with third-party advertisements after the election writ has been dropped.

And what is the outcome of these attempts to silence opposition?

Consider what happened at the federal level.

In 2004, Jean Chrétien’s Liberal administration introduced a ban on business and labour donations. Of course, that deprived both parties of the funds needed to run a campaign.

To make up the difference, a political subsidy was created. Parties were guaranteed $2.04 from the public purse for each vote they received.

This had a number of troubling implications. It cost taxpayers almost $30 million during the 2008 federal election.

More important, it meant that voters were subsidizing parties whose policies they may have found offensive. The Bloc Québécois received almost $3 million for its campaign to break up the country.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is now in the process of phasing out this subsidy in Ottawa. But the question remains: How are the lost corporate and union donations to be made up?

While Dix didn’t answer this question directly, he did give a hint. If the NDP is elected, he intends to strike a legislative committee on campaign reform.

Maybe that sounds innocent enough. Although when politicians deflect questions by setting up a committee, it usually means we won’t like the answer.

But why get into this bind in the first place?

After repeated interventions by the courts, a compromise was reached on election advertising. Third-party sponsors are held to a limit of $3,138 per riding, and $156,897 provincewide during the campaign.

If Dix is willing to listen, the same approach could be used with union and business donations. That would preserve the right of such groups to get involved, but without granting them too prominent a role.

In practical terms, this is the first real challenge Dix has faced in an uneventful campaign to date. How he responds will reveal the kind of premier he plans to be. But as things stand, a healthy dose of skepticism seems warranted.

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